Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

HMP Belmarsh: The high-security prison where terrorists exchange ideas and ‘jihad banter’

Convicted terrorist told court how he was ‘surrounded by jihadis’ in infamous jail

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Thursday 13 February 2020 11:09 GMT
Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman is likely to have associated with other terrorist prisoners
Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman is likely to have associated with other terrorist prisoners (Rex)

With a string of terror plots on British soil, there has been a single location raised again and again during talk of extremist networking: HMP Belmarsh.

The high-security prison recently held both the Streatham and Fishmongers’ Hall attackers, as well as the Parson’s Green bomber and a man convicted this week of planning new atrocities after his release.

There are fears the jail in southeast London could be acting as a breeding ground for terror as prisoners are able to network, exchange ideas and have “jihad banter”.

Mohiussunnath Chowdhury bragged of meeting high-profile terrorists and discussing attacks while being held on remand after attacking police officers with a sword outside Buckingham Palace in 2017.

The Isis supporter, who was initially acquitted of terror offences after being given trial advice by fellow inmates, told undercover officers he associated with “likeminded brothers” including the Parsons Green bomber Ahmed Hassan and a man who knew Mohammed Emwazi, the Isis executioner dubbed “Jihadi John”.

Chowdhury told his trial that he had been “surrounded by jihadis” in HMP Belmarsh and they frequently discussed terror attacks.

“There’s many many radical Muslims in prison and usually that’s all they would talk about,” he said.

Chowdhury told undercover police he had been advised to shave his long beard and “play the game” while waiting for a retrial, as he drew graphic cartoons of terror attacks in his cell.

Asked in court about a fantasy he expressed of ploughing a vehicle into Remembrance Day crowds, Chowdhury said it had been part of the “jihad banter that I had in prison”, adding: “This is the kind of stuff I would hear other prison inmates talk about.”

Streatham attacker Sudesh Amman, who was shot dead by armed police after launching a knife rampage days after his release, was in HMP Belmarsh at the same time as Chowdhury.

While Amman was serving a sentence for possessing and disseminating terrorist material, Chowdhury was on remand for slashing police officers with a sword outside Buckingham Palace.

Another prisoner held inside the jail told The Times that Amman openly voiced his wish to commit an attack and “take out” MPs to other inmates.

Chowdhury had spoken to undercover police officers of a “young, trusted brother” he met in prison who he dreamed about committing a terror attack in London alongside.

He said he imagined they were sitting on an open-top bus armed with guns, before launching a massacre where he was “martyred” amid flying black flags.

At the time, the undercover officer interpreted Chowdhury’s supposed dream as a fiction to disguise his own plans for a lone attack, but others have questioned whether the fellow inmate could have been Amman.

Streatham terror attack: What we know so far

The 20-year-old was already an avid Isis supporter, who voiced his wish to carry out an attack and encouraged his girlfriend to behead her parents before he was jailed in 2018.

But Amman’s mother claimed he had been radicalised further in HMP Belmarsh, telling Sky News: “He became more religious inside prison, that’s where I think he became radicalised.”

Other terrorists held inside the prison include a trio of plotters who called themselves the “Three Musketeers”, who planned an attack together after meeting in HMP Belmarsh while serving unrelated terror sentences.

Also held in HMP Belmarsh in the past were Anjem Choudary, Abu Hamza, Lee Rigby’s killers and Thomas Mair, the neo-Nazi who murdered Jo Cox.

The jail has a high-security wing for terrorists and other dangerous prisoners, but also serves as a local prison for parts of London and Essex.

The most recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons said a quarter of its inmates were Muslim and 53 per cent were from a black or ethnic minority background.

At the time of the inspection in 2018, HMP Belmarsh held 21 convicted terrorist prisoners and seven others who were considered at risk of radicalisation.

It said that only a “small number” of the 28 were on a counter-extremism programme, but did not state why.

The report claimed that “counter-terrorism arrangements appeared extensive”, but the latest revelations bring that claim into question.

A former prison governor who conducted a government-commissioned review of Islamist extremism in jails in 2016 said HMP Belmarsh was in an “especially difficult” position because of its intake of terrorists, violent prisoners and gang members.

Ian Acheson told The Independent that non-extremist criminals held there could be “susceptible” to radicalisation from terrorist inmates.

HMP Belmarsh, London (PA)

“We have the extraordinary situation where people on remand are in close proximity to convicted terrorists,” he added. “We put them all in close proximity and they have carte blanche to do whatever they want.”

Mr Acheson said that although “extensive security resources” were monitoring activity inside the prison, in cases like Amman’s and Chowdhury’s they are only able to act after their release.

“Police are dealing with problems as they manifest themselves on the streets,” he added. “I would put money on the fact there’s another man like Sudesh Amman in the population.”

Mr Acheson’s damning 2016 report sparked the creation of separation centres for the most influential extremists, but only one of the four units set up is currently in operation.

He called for authorities to “get a grip” on the management of terror offenders, as the government prepares to enact emergency legislation aiming to keep them in prison for longer.

He warned that the “complete collapse” of order, control and safety across the prison estate meant that jails were unable to deal with extremism.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have tough measures in place to prevent extremist prisoners spreading their poisonous ideology.

“Staff are trained to spot the signs and are supported by counterterrorism specialists in prisons. Those who pose a high risk can be removed from the main population, including relocation to a separation centre in the most serious cases.”

According to the latest statistics available, there are 224 terrorist prisoners in custody in Britain – the vast majority of whom hold Islamist extremist views.

But up to 800 inmates at any one time are being monitored for suspected extremism, and prison officers suspect the number is far higher – and growing.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in